… my second teacher tribute …
My friend Susan commented to me that she had read my last post, I was amazing, and I always made her cry. After a snarky comment back about how it was my goal to cause her eye makeup to run down her face, I told her seriously how much I appreciated her encouragement and how I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. This blog would not be “Autism Home Rescue,” my life and my children’s lives (my son’s life especially) would not be the same, and my perspective might be vastly different were it not for my friend Susan. So for this post, I’ve decided to write my second teacher/mentor tribute about how Susan and I came to be in each other’s lives today. Does everything happen for a reason? You decide.
A wrong number phone call changed everything.
When Alex was a little over one year old, I decided I wanted to take him to a “mommy and me” music class. He loved music (see “Music is a language all its own” to read about our first musical conversation) and I was committed to reaching out within the stay-at-home mom community and finding friends and activities for our new family. I had browsed through some parent magazines, but wasn’t really making much of an effort to find a class when one afternoon the phone rang.
“Hello, this is Margie from Music Together. I’m wondering if you and your daughter Olivia could switch from the Thursday class to the Tuesday class?”
Wrong number. No daughter, no Olivia, no class registration. I could have politely hung up. But I didn’t.
“Well, you’ve got the wrong number, there’s no Olivia here. But I have a 14 month old son, and we’re looking for a music class. Can you tell me about it?”
She described the class, it was perfect. Then she literally said (and no, I am not making this up) “It starts tomorrow morning, around the corner from you. Why don’t you go?”
I got chills. I looked up, scanning for some kind of angel keeping watch, and said “Okay.”
The next morning we arrived at Music Together. It was wonderful, we had so much fun. During that first ten week session we met Sabine and her mom Rose. A year later little Sabine would help me understand more clearly than anyone else how to reach my son as he began to retreat into autism. (Read the story of Sabine’s lesson here.) A couple sessions after we met Rose and Sabine, Alex and I met Susan and her daughter Lauren.
From the get-go, Susan told me I looked familiar. My response was, “Yeah, I get that a lot.” One day she met me in the parking lot.
“Seriously, you really do look familiar. Are you sure we don’t know each other from somewhere?”
“Did you go to high school around here? When did you graduate?” I asked.
“Well, I graduated in 1986, but I didn’t go to high school in this district. I did go to the local elementary school though. I was vice president of the school in 5th grade. See how far that got me?” Susan looked around and laughed.
“Wait, wait.” I gave her a quizzical look. “You couldn’t have been vice president of the school in 5th grade. Because I was secretary of the school in 5th grade and… Susan B?”
“Cathy M?” She replied.
Amazing. I was reconnecting with a woman I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. In a totally new world, we had everything in common again. Each week we sang and danced with our kids, we shared family stories and parenting advice. As time went on, things seemed okay on the surface, but underneath the happy-new-mom facade I tried so hard to maintain, the ground on which I was standing was beginning to crumble. No one noticed. Except for Susan.
Each week she quietly watched us. Each week she saw the changes in Alex that I was trying hard to keep under wraps. At Alex’s second birthday party (a music party of course), he did not respond to his name. His grandmother clapped loud behind him to see if he would react. He did not. I snuck upstairs after the party and made a secret phone call to my aunt-in-law, who is a speech pathologist, to get some information on typical speech development and whether or not to have Alex evaluated for early intervention.
Each week the mothers, teacher, kids and I sang and danced. Each week between classes I made calls to experts, set up evaluation times, tried to get my game face on, to tackle the puzzle, to figure out what the heck was attacking my precious little boy from the inside out. Where was he going? Why was he all of a sudden so strange? Who knew the answers? Who could help?
Alex’s increasing strange behavior and occasional outbursts were scary and embarrassing, especially since I had no way to explain them. I felt terribly alone. That session of music class there was a lullaby called “The River is Wide” of which the teacher was particularly fond. I think it was adapted from an old hymn or spiritual poem. The words were:
“The river is wide, I cannot cross over. And neither have I wings to fly. Give me a boat that can carry two. And both shall row, my child and I.”
As I type this, I can hear the music teacher’s voice and the gentle sounds of the guitar. Tears are slowly making their way down my cheeks. I remember so clearly that song and my desperation. I used to hold Alex on my lap at the lullaby time and rock him, trying to make sure he didn’t see me cry. It was a sweet, beautiful song for naptime for everyone else. But for me, it was my life. Where was that boat? How in the world would I cross? All those two years I thought I would live in Italy, now I found myself almost to the shores of Holland without a guide. I had no one, and no wings.
What I didn’t realize was that I was not alone in my struggle. Susan was there, too. She saw my tears and she knew why I cried them, even though the other moms didn’t. Right around the time Alex was being diagnosed, Susan stopped me after class. She asked me how I was and I started to cry right in front of her. I couldn’t hide it.
I choked, “They think it’s autism… We had an evaluation…”
Susan didn’t ask me about the doctor or the tests or the plan or anything anyone else had asked. She simply put her arm around me and said:
“You remember my daughter Rachel, right? She’s Lauren’s older sister, she’s been here a few times with us.”
“She’s beautiful, right? She has fun in class, she participates and she responds. She’s okay, right?”
I nodded again, tears still flowing on my cheeks.
“Rachel has autism. And she is just like Alex. I know who is going to help you. There is a behavior specialist named Mari. She works with Rachel. She will work with Alex, and she will help, you’ll see. It will be okay.”
I didn’t question, and I didn’t need to look up. I felt that angel watching. I simply said, “Okay.”
What I needed more than anything right then was that promise that it would be okay. There was a boat, there was a teacher, I would learn how to row. The water was wide, but there were other people crossing too. No one could tell me or make me believe. But Susan could. And more importantly, she did. In a way that only my dear friend Susan could do, she explained how it was with Alex, how he was like her Rachel, and how the universe was going to bend to connect me with all the right people and knowledge I needed to help my son.
When I contacted Mari a short time later to ask her to begin a home program for Alex, neither Mari nor the agency for which she worked had an open space for him. On the way to the agency interview (which I begged for anyhow), buoyed by the confidence I borrowed from Susan, I prayed. Through those prayers and– I firmly believe– Susan’s sheer force of will, the universe bent and the connections were made. As I walked into the agency– the best ABA therapy practice in our area at the time, the one with the 25% full recovery rate from autism and the most encouraging outcomes for kids on the spectrum– the director was just hanging up the phone.
“Amazing.” She said. “I just had a cancellation. We have one spot left. Alex can have it.”
Does everything happen for a reason?
I believe so. Maybe you don’t see the world that way. Or maybe things happen differently in your life. And that’s okay. But for me, yes, I believe there are no coincidences. Just as I had no explanation for what was happening to Alex when he was two years old, I have no explanation for the wrong number phone call that led me to a friend from grade school whose child was helped by the same woman who would become a true angel to my son. Mari and Susan are now a forever part of my family.
I’ve never asked her, but when I think back, I wonder if Susan knew exactly the words to say that day in music class. There certainly had been many, many people speaking to me about Alex and our family. Much of the time I didn’t understand their words, it was like a different language. Yet Susan’s reassurance and gentle guidance reached through my confusion and pain, and gave me hope when I most needed it.
Does everything happen for a reason? You decide.